At Liberty University, all anyone can talk about is Jerry Falwell Jr. Just not in public.
“When he does stupid stuff, people will mention it to others they consider confidants and not keep it totally secret,” a trusted adviser to Falwell, the school’s president and chancellor, told me. “But they won’t rat him out.”
That’s beginning to change.
Over the past year, Falwell, a prominent evangelical leader and supporter of President Donald Trump, has come under increasing scrutiny. News outlets have reported on business deals by Liberty University benefiting Falwell’s friends. Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen claimed that he had helped Falwell clean up racy “personal” photographs.
Based on scores of new interviews and documents obtained for this article, concerns about Falwell’s behavior go well beyond that—and it’s causing longtime, loyal Liberty University officials to rapidly lose faith in him.
More than two dozen current and former high-ranking Liberty University officials and close associates of Falwell spoke to me or provided documents for this article, opening up—for the first time at an institution so intimately associated with the Falwell family—about what they’ve experienced and why they don’t think he’s the right man to lead Liberty University or serve as a figurehead in the Christian conservative movement.
In interviews over the past eight months, they depicted how Falwell and his wife, Becki, consolidated power at Liberty University and how Falwell presides over a culture of self-dealing, directing university resources into projects and real estate deals in which his friends and family have stood to make personal financial gains. Among the previously unreported revelations are Falwell’s decision to hire his son Trey’s company to manage a shopping center owned by the university, Falwell’s advocacy for loans given by the university to his friends, and Falwell’s awarding university contracts to businesses owned by his friends.
“We’re not a school; we’re a real estate hedge fund,” said a senior university official with inside knowledge of Liberty’s finances. “We’re not educating; we’re buying real estate every year and taking students’ money to do it.”
Liberty employees detailed other instances of Falwell’s behavior that they see as falling short of the standard of conduct they expect from conservative Christian leaders, from partying at nightclubs, to graphically discussing his sex life with employees, to electioneering that makes uneasy even those who fondly remember the heyday of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr., the school’s founder and Falwell Jr.’s father, and his Moral Majority.
In January, the Wall Street Journal reported that in the run-up to Trump’s presidential campaign, Cohen hired John Gauger, a Liberty University employee who runs a private consulting firm, to manipulate online polls in Trump’s favor. Not previously reported is the fact that, according to a half-dozen high-level Liberty University sources, when Gauger traveled to New York to collect payment from Cohen, he was joined by Trey Falwell, a vice president at Liberty. During that trip,Trey posted a now-deleted photo to Instagram of around $12,000 in cash spread on a hotel bed, raising questions about his knowledge of Gauger’s poll-rigging work. Trey did not respond to requests for comment.
Jerry Falwell Jr. responded to more than two dozen written questions, defending his actions and criticizing the reporting of this article. “I fear that the true information I am sharing in good faith will simply not make any difference. And will only result in more questions,” Falwell said. He declined to answer subsequent questions.
The string of news articles over the past several months has had a minimal effect on Falwell’s leadership of Liberty University. As the namesake of the school’s founder, Falwell has never had his position seriously challenged. Liberty is thriving financially. Its enrollment has surged past 110,000 students—the vast majority of whom are enrolled online—and across its campus in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, the hum of backhoes and bulldozers is omnipresent as construction crews work to keep pace with the university’s swelling ambitions.
But these new revelations speak to rising discontent with Falwell’s stewardship. The people interviewed for this article include members of Liberty’s board of trustees, senior university officials, and rank-and-file staff members who work closely with Falwell. They are reluctant to speak out—there’s no organized, open dissent to Falwell on campus—but they said they see it as necessary to save Liberty University and the values it once stood for. They said they believe in the Christian tradition and in the conservative politics at the heart of Liberty’s mission. Many knew Jerry Falwell Sr. and remember him with clear affection. “The day that man died was the day I lost a father,” one current university official said. All count themselves as conservatives. Many are strong supporters of Trump.
Jerry Falwell Jr. gestures while speaking as his wife, Becki, listens during a town hall at Liberty University on Nov. 28, 2018. | AP Photo/Steve Helber
I am a graduate of Liberty University, and my time there overlapped the tenures of both Falwell Sr. and his son. Over the course of my years of reporting on the university, the Falwells have granted me considerable access, including sit-down interviews in the offices of both Falwell Jr. and his brother, the Rev. Jonathan Falwell, who leads Thomas Road Baptist Church. I’ve written candidly about my time there as a student, reported about political divisions on campus and revealed that Trey co-owns a gay-friendly hostel in Miami.
Members of the Liberty University community are generally reluctant to go on the record. The school uses nondisclosure agreements to prohibit many university employees or board members from openly discussing what they’ve seen Falwell do. (“All trustees sign a confidentiality agreement that does not expire at the close of Board service,” Liberty’s attorney told board members in an email that was sent earlier this month after the school received inquiries from reporters on some of the issues outlined in this article.) Tenure and its protections are not available to Liberty faculty members outside the law school. If you teach or work at Liberty, you must get approval from Falwell’s office before you speak to the media. Talk to reporters without his approval—or publicly criticize him, even obliquely—and you could lose your job. If you’re a board member and do the same, you could get forced out, even if you have unimpeachable credentials in the Christian conservative movement.
“It’s a dictatorship,” one current high-level employee of the school said. “Nobody craps at the university without Jerry’s approval.”
“Everybody is scared for their life. Everybody walks around in fear,” said a current university employee who agreed to speak for this article only after purchasing a burner phone, fearing that Falwell was monitoring their communications. The fear is not limited to Liberty’s campus. Several people who lack any tie to Liberty but live in the school’s hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia, refused to go on the record for this story, fearing Falwell would take revenge upon them and their families. “Fear is probably his most powerful weapon,” a former senior university official said.
But even those who fear have their breaking points.
In speaking out, said one longtime current university employee with close ties to theschool’s first family, “I feel like I’m betraying them in some way. But someone’s gotta tell the freakin’ truth.”
“We’re talking about the difference between right and wrong,” a current high-ranking university official said. “Not even ‘being a Christian,’ but being a good person, versus people who manipulate the system.”
Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr. looks around the inside of an auxiliary sanctuary at the new Thomas Road Baptist Church in June 2006. | AP Photo/Steve Helber
PART I: The Kingdom
Long before his May 2007 death, the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr.—the Baptist preacher who founded Liberty University and whose creation of the Moral Majority marked the emergence of white evangelical conservatives as a national political force—made clear how he wanted the empire he’d built to be divided when the time came.
His two sons, Jerry Jr. and Jonathan, had each inherited different aspects of their father’s persona. For Jerry Jr., the elder of the two by four years, it was the stomach for partisan politics, ability to throw an elbow and the savvy to court influential friends. For Jonathan, it was the calling to ministry, his easy way with people and charisma as a public speaker. Jerry Jr. would preside over Liberty University, and Jonathan would lead Thomas Road Baptist Church. Each son had worked under their father at the respective institutions; each knew well what those positions would require.
A bigger question remained: Who would step into Falwell Sr.’s unique role as a national figurehead at the crossroads of evangelical Christianity and conservative politics—a man who counted presidents and senators as friends, a public figure whose outspoken statements riled critics and endeared him to conservatives, and whose endorsement carried real weight with a certain segment of voters?
Left: Jerry Falwell Jr. speaks at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Right: At Thomas Road Baptist Church, Rev. Jonathan Falwell introduces then-presidential candidate Mike Huckabee in Feb. 2008. | AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, AP PHOTO/The News & Advance, Jill Nance
After the death of Falwell Sr., many within his tight-knit community expected Jonathan to pick up the mantle. A preacher by training, Jonathan had pastoral sensitivities and a personable nature that his brother Jerry lacked.
“Jonathan’s a great speaker and orator, a people person,” one current top Liberty employee close to the Falwell family told me. “Jerry can’t complete a sentence in person. … He’s nervous. It’s just not him, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
But Jerry had a passion for politics, a talent for riling up a certain type of cultural conservative and a spouse, Becki, who, while publicly playing the role of the quiet, supportive, Baptist housewife, knew how to get her way.
“You know, there’s a head of every family,” said a former university employee who worked closely with Becki Falwell for many years. “But what turns the head? The neck. She’s the neck that turns the head wherever she wants it.”
“Until Big Jerry died, you wouldn’t have known [Becki] if she walked up and slapped you,” said a former longtime Liberty official.“Big Jerry dies, and all of a sudden, [if] you’re walking down the hall and you didn’t greet her right, you’re fired.” As if to underline this point, one longtime university employee shared a 2012email in which Becki contacted four school executives at 7:06 p.m. to complain that a low-level university employee had posted a Facebook status on her personal account criticizing alack of adequate parking on campus. “Someone needs to talk to this girl. I don’t think that we allow employees to post negative remarks about Liberty,” Becki wrote to the school officials in a message that included a screenshot of the employee’s post. Shortly before 9:00 p.m., one senior official replied, “We are attempting to call her at home right now.” The woman in question did not respond to requests for comment, but according to her Facebook profile, she is no longer an employee of Liberty University.
In an email obtained for this article, Becki Falwell tells several high-level Liberty officials that “someone needs to talk to” a low-level university employee who complained about parking availability on campus in a post on her personal Facebook feed. (Email addresses and surname of employee have been redacted.) | Obtained by Brandon Ambrosino
A half-dozen people with inside knowledge of the Falwell family said that, after Falwell’s death, Becki pushed to shrink Jonathan’s role at the university—a move current and former Liberty officials described as the start of Jerry and Becki consolidating power.
Right after his father died,Jonathan held a position with Liberty University that was limited but which allowed him “to make sure [Liberty] kept its compass,” as one former longtime Liberty official put it. According to a 2008 statement announcing Jonathan’s appointment as the school’s vice chancellor for spiritual affairs, his responsibilities would include upholding the “doctrinal integrity of the university” and advising his brother on “matters of faith.”
“We need to make sure … that we never go in any direction that we as a university shouldn’t go,” Jonathan said in the statement at the time. “That’s the area that I’m going to focus on and do everything I can to ensure that my dad’s life’s work stays continuing to fulfill the mission that he had in 1971,” the year the university was formed.
But now, top Liberty officials say Jonathan doesn’t hold any sway—spiritual or otherwise—over the university that grew out of the church he leads. “As a general rule,” said a former high-ranking university official with longstanding ties to Liberty and the Falwell family, Falwell Sr. “spoke every Wednesday in [convocation] all year long. His desire was that whoever was the pastor of Thomas Road would [continue the tradition and] speak at Liberty. I think Jonathan speaks … maybe a few times per year.”
“Jerry never removed Jonathan,” a former top Liberty official said. “He just kind of pushed him aside.” For one, Jerry used Liberty’s abundant resources to bring his father’s diffuse properties under his control. “He bought all the [Thomas Road Baptist Church] properties, [Liberty Christian Academy], Jonathan’s building at the airport, and a couple of others. Jonathan complained but never stood up to [Jerry] because he knew [Jerry] controlled the purse strings,” the former top official said. Jonathan did not respond to requests for comment.
While longtime confidants of the Falwell family make clear that Becki loves Jonathan—“they’re family after all,” said one former longtime Liberty employee—many feel that she worked hard to make sure that everyone knew it was her husband, and not her brother-in-law, who would assume the elder Falwell’s mantle as a leading figurehead in the conservative evangelical movement. Becki’s message to Jerry, one high-ranking university official said, was simple: You are Jerry Falwell Junior.
As in: the new Jerry Falwell—the new leader of the Religious Right.
A Liberty student prays during convocation at the university in February 2013. | AP/Norm Shafer
Liberty University has transformed under Jerry Falwell Jr.’s leadership. When he took over as president in 2007, the school, which is a nonprofit, had listed assets of just over $259 million on its then most recent IRS Form 990; in its filing for the fiscal year ending in June 2017, its assets surpassed $2.5 billion. That number is now more than $3 billion, according to public statements Falwell made in 2018.
That growth is driven largely by a vast increase in the number of online students at the school, who now number some 95,000. Many Falwell confidants are concerned with where they see that university tuition money going: into university-funded construction and real estate projects that enrich the Falwell family and their friends.
Among these projects is a Lynchburg shopping center that is owned by Liberty University but which members of the Falwell family have a personal financial stake in operating, according to emails obtained by me.
In an email dated July 18, 2012, Falwell informed several university executives that his son, Trey Falwell, was “starting a new company to do the management” of properties owned by the school, including the shopping center. Trey Falwell, whose given name is Jerry Falwell III, is now a vice president of Liberty University. On August 7, 2012, Trey registered that privately owned company, JF Management LLC, with Campbell County, Virginia. As the address of its principal office, he gave the location of a house where he and his wife, Sarah, resided.
In a July 2012 email obtained for this article, Jerry Falwell Jr. tells several high-ranking Liberty University officials that his son, Trey, is starting a new company to manage a property owned by the school. (Email addresses, phone number and names of cc-ed employees have been redacted by Politico.) | Obtained by Brandon Ambrosino
Experts on tax law and nonprofit organizations said that having the president of a nonprofit university directing university business to a company led by his son would be troubling.
“It raises red flags to have your kids being able to profit off the activities of the organization,” said Philip Hackney, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh Law School who specializes in taxation and nonprofit management. As a general matter of law, “a nonprofit director or officer owes a ‘duty of loyalty’ to the nonprofit. What this means is he cannot take unfair advantage of the nonprofit he controls to his advantage.”
It’s the responsibility of nonprofit leaders to look out for the best interests of their organization, Hackney said, and as a standard practice, those leaders should be able to show how their financial transactions further the nonprofit’s mission in some way.
Asked how the property-management arrangement furthers Liberty’s mission, Falwell said the shopping center was donated to the school in poor condition. “Frankly, there are fewer professional property managers who would be interested in running it for us.”
A stone’s throw from the shopping center is a LaQuinta Inn whose ownership also raises questions about whether Falwell is directing business to family and friends.
The LaQuinta is owned by Comeback Inn LLC, which is registered to Chris Doyle, who manages real estate for the university. In a December 2018 affidavit, Falwell Jr. described Doyle as his “partner in … real estate ventures in Virginia.” Multiple current and former university officials with knowledge of theLaQuinta arrangement said Trey Falwell is a silent shareholder in Comeback Inn.
In an email responding to questions, Doyle declined to discuss the issue. “If my personal and business relationships are of value and interest to the public, I should write a book and [see] no reason to comment at this time,” Doyle said.
Emails obtained for this article show that on at least one occasion, university employees were asked to promote the LaQuinta on the school’s website—what several current and former high-ranking Liberty officials and employees described as part of a process where the school “funnels business” to the hotel.
Falwell denied having a financial interest in Comeback Inn. “I have not financially benefitted from Comeback Inn’s business and I have never owned any interest in Comeback Inn, LLC,” Falwell said in a statement. He did not answer for his son. “I will let Trey Falwell respond separately on his own behalf if he has any comment regarding your question.” Trey Falwell did not respond to requests for comment.
“What I have found over the years is if something doesn’t make sense and Jerry really wants it to happen, he in some form or fashion has a personal interest,” said a current high-ranking Liberty employee with knowledge of Falwell’s financial dealings.
The line between where the Falwell family’s wealth begins and Liberty’s finances end is blurry.
University officials describe Liberty loaning money to the Falwells’ friends, even when these loans arguably are not in the school’s financial interests.According to emails and loan documents obtained for this article, in 2014, the university gave loans of at least $200,000 to Prototype Tourism LLC, a “destination marketing” company founded by Liberty graduate Josh Oppenheimer, whom Jerry Falwell Jr. described to me as “a friendly supporter.” According to emails I’ve reviewed, several high-ranking Liberty officials knew about the loan, including Vice President Trey Falwell. The graduate had difficulty repaying the loan—“not surprised,” Trey wrote in an email.
When asked about the loan, Jerry Falwell Jr. clarified the school’s role with Prototype Tourism. “Liberty University was not simply a lender, but was a minority investor in Prototype Tourism, LLC,” he wrote. Falwell described the company’s goal as promoting tourism to Lynchburg. “Due diligence was performed by multiple individuals who discussed the pros and cons and the consensus was that it was worthwhile to proceed,” Falwell wrote. “In the end, I reluctantly agreed with the recommendation and allowed the transaction to proceed. In hindsight, it was not a good decision. … LU lost its investment and the loan portion of the deal was only partially paid back.”
Other loans were precursors to massive contracts. In 2013, Robert Moon, a friend of Falwell’s with deep family ties to the Falwells, founded Construction Management Associates Inc., a construction company devoted to work on and around campus. Previously unreported is the fact that Liberty gave Moon a loan of $750,000 to form the company before awarding it more than $130 million in contracts and selling it land owned by the university.
When I described this arrangement to Hackney, the associate professor at Pitt Law, he said: “This is not standard or good practice. … A nonprofit that is not in the business of loaning money has little reason to be conducting such activity. It raises issues of whether these are in fact charitable activities that further the nonprofit’s mission.”
Asked whether such loans were a common practice for the university, Falwell wrote in an email that “Liberty has considered investments in other local start-up businesses that would help the University’s business model and the local economy.”
“On the other hand,” Falwell continued, “Liberty University has one of the largest unrestricted endowments in the nation and frequently invests in hundreds, if not thousands, of companies across the world purely for the return on investment whether the company has any nexus to Liberty’s mission or not. The same is true of every major university.”
Moreover, Falwell continued, “I have not personally benefited financially from CMA’s or any other contractor’s work for Liberty University nor has any member of my family.”
At the outset, some in Falwell’s inner circle were not so confident in the arrangement with Moon. Before his CMA Inc. became Liberty’s go-to contractor, the school bid out its construction work through an office on campus. (“Free enterprise tends to do pretty well,” one high-ranking university official said.) The prospect of changing that—giving CMA control over campus construction and its associated costs—rankled some senior university officials.
Early on in the CMA partnership, before CMA became the university’s single-largest contractor, Charles Spence, the school’s then-vice president of planning and construction, expressed unease about the high costs Moon was quoting for certain school projects. “Jerry I am very concerned about cost control on all the projects,” he wrote to Falwell in a November 2014 email. “Over the last couple of weeks we have had a lot of meetings and conversations on cost and cost overruns. We are just seeing the information begin to trickle in and there really don’t seem to be good answers just a response that the cost we are seeing are fair, and being handled appropriately.”
“I hope that I am over reacting,”Spence continued, “but I assure you I am concerned.”
“I am fine with going back to bidding every project out if CMA can’t run with the big dogs!” Falwell replied. “Let’s hold their feet to the fire!”
In each of the two years that followed, Liberty paid CMA more than $62 million, part of at least $138 million in contracts from Liberty since the company was formed, according to publicly available tax documents.
Senior Liberty officials might whisper about the propriety of these business deals, but they told me that Falwell’s decisions on campus are rarely ever challenged by the school’s board of trustees. “There’s no accountability,” a former high-ranking university officer said. “Jerry’s got pretty free reign to wheel and deal professionally and personally. The board will approve an annual budget, but beyond that … he doesn’t go to the board to get approval. … It simply doesn’t happen.”
In his statement, Falwell said he and Moon “are on friendly terms and [have] interacted socially in past years but neither of us would list the other on their list of close friends and associates. It is completely a typical arms-length business relationship.”
But there is evidence to the contrary—much of it documented on the Falwells’ own social media accounts.
In June 2013, for instance, the year CMA was formed, Falwell shared a photo on Instagram showing him, Becki and Trey joining Moon for a cruise down the James River on Moon’s private boat. When asked about the photographs, Falwell admitted to joining Moon on his boat “about five or six times.” “These afternoon outings did not cause me to lose my negotiation skills or abandon my fiduciary duties to enter into deals in the interest of the University,” Falwell wrote.
In this June 2013 Instagram post by Jerry Falwell Jr,. Falwell and his wife Becki pose for a photograph with Robert Moon during a boat ride on the James River. | Instagram: jerryfalwelljr
In July 2014, Falwell, Trey and Moon traveled to Miami together. Falwell said in his statement that he recalls “discussing University business” on the trip.
During the trip, photos were taken of Jerry and Trey Falwell partying at a Miami nightclub—photos that multiple Liberty University officials said Jerry Falwell tried to make disappear.
In this July 19, 2014, photo from Miami Beach’s WALL nightclub, Jerry Falwell Jr. (circled here in red) can be seen among the clubgoers. | Seth Browarnik/WorldRedEye.com
PART II: The Fixer
On July 19, 2014, popular Swedish DJ John Dahlbäck performed at Wall, a nightclub in Miami Beach, Fla. That night, the club happened to have a photographer on-site to grab candid shots of the revelry. The photos were shared online by World Red Eye, an outlet that documents Miami’s nightlife scene, and Jerry and Trey Falwell were visible in some of the pictures—the outlet identified Trey by name.
In a statement on August 21, Jerry Falwell denied the existence of any photo of him at the club. “There was no picture snapped of me at WALL nightclub or any other nightclub,” Falwell wrote. “I’m sure you already knew that though.”
When told that I had obtained a photo of him for this article, Falwell said I was “terribly mistaken.”“If you show me the picture, I can probably help you out,” he wrote. “I think you are making some incorrect assumptions, or have been told false things or are seeing something that was photo–shopped.”
After I sent him the photo, as well as a photo of Trey at Wall, Falwell responded: “I never asked anyone to get rid of any pictures on the internet of me and I never have seen the picture you claim is of me below. If the person in the picture is me, it was likely photo-shopped.” In a second email sent 23 minutes later, Falwell wrote: “But the bigger question, Brandon, is why would I want a picture like that taken down if I had seen it?”
Left: A zoomed-in close-up of Jerry Falwell Jr. in the crowd at WALL nightclub in Miami Beach, taken from the photo at the start of this section. Right: Also at the club that night were Trey Falwell and his wife, Sarah. | Seth Browarnik/WorldRedEye.com
According to several people with direct knowledge of the situation, Falwell—the president of a conservative Christian college that frowns upon co-ed dancing (Liberty students can receive demerits if seen doing it) and prohibits alcohol use (for which students can be expelled)—was angry that photos of him clubbing made it up online. To remedy the situation, multiple Liberty staffers said Falwell went to John Gauger, whom they characterized as his “IT guy,” and asked him to downgrade the photos’ prominence on Google searches. Gauger did not respond to requests for comment.
Gauger has worked at Liberty since earning his MBA from the school in 2009. In 2016, he was promoted to become the school’s chief information officer about a year and a half after he was named deputy CIO. To several university sources, his rapid rise to the C-suite was shocking.
“I’m not being disrespectful, but John was a nobody,” one longtime Liberty official said.“And the next thing you know, he’s high up in IT.”
Longtime Liberty officials describe Gauger as a sort of fixer for Falwell, a man promoted because he would do what Falwell asked of him without complaint. But Gauger is more than just a universityTax records show Liberty paid RedFinch $123,950 during 2016, for what sources described as search-engine recruitment of online students for the university. Gauger did not respond to requests for comment.
RedFinch’s online work for the school goes beyond typical SEO marketing. In an email from August 2013 obtained for this article, Falwell asked Gauger to defend him in the comments section of a local news article that Falwell felt reflected too negatively on him. Falwell even emailed Gauger the exact wording to post.
“I’m having my RedFinch guys blow this up right away,” Gauger responded. “I’ll tell you how it goes.”
When Falwell told Gauger a different employee already chimed into the conversation, Gauger insisted that he’d “have a few accounts turn the conversation elsewhere just for good measure.”
According to several longtime Liberty employees, it’s extremely unusual for university employees to be allowed to own side businesses that do contract work for the school. “I’ve always had a problem with RedFinch because there never was any clear and distinct lines,” one former Liberty employee told me. “You can’t work at Liberty 8-5 on the clock and get paid from somebody else for the same hours.”
Multiple university officials said Gauger is very close, both personally and professionally, with the Falwells, especially Trey.At Liberty, Gauger reports to Trey, and Trey answers only to his dad.
In January, the Wall Street Journal reported that in 2014 and 2015, Michael Cohen hired Gauger’s side business, RedFinch LLC, to rig online polls in Donald Trump’s favor while he considered a run for the presidency. Gauger’s work consisted of writing a computer script to repeatedly vote for Trump in two online polls; his company would get paid $50,000 in return. Instead, Gauger told the Journal that after a meeting at Trump Tower in Manhattan, Cohen paid Gauger roughly one-fourth of that amount—between $12,000 and $13,000 in cash—and gave him a boxing glove worn by a mixed martial arts fighter.
Through his lawyer, Cohen, who is serving a three-year prison sentence for tax fraud, making false statements to Congress and violating campaign finance laws, declined a request to comment for this article.
Previously unreported about this incident is that Trey joined Gauger on the January 2015 trip to New York, and posted a photo to Instagramshowing a large amount of cash spread atop a bed in a hotel room. Liberty officials who saw the since-deleted post and described its contents said it raised questions about Trey’s involvement in the pro-Trump poll-rigging effort.
“The idiot posted [a picture of] money on a bed?!” one current senior Liberty official said. “Why do that if you’re not involved with it?”
Liberty officials also pointed to a tweet sent out by the university’s Twitter account on January 23, 2014, linking to one of the polls that the Wall Street Journal reported Gauger had rigged. The poll was conducted by CNBC and asked readers to vote for the top American business leaders.
On Jan. 23, 2014, Liberty University’s official Twitter account asked its followers to vote for Donald Trump in an online poll hosted by CNBC. The online poll was among those Michael Cohen, Trump’s attorney, paid John Gauger, a Liberty employee and owner of RedFinch Solutions LLC, to manipulate. | Twitter
As a nonprofit, Liberty University is legally prohibited from engaging in “political campaign activity,” to use the IRS’ phrase, at the risk of losing its nonprofit status.
When asked about the tweet, Falwell told me he authorized the university’s marketing department to send it as way of thanking Trump for speaking at Liberty. “A representative of the Trump business organization asked for Liberty University to use Twitter to encourage followers to vote for Donald Trump in the annual CNBC poll. We often get requests from Convocation speakers to promote their books, movies, music and other projects. And we do it all the time,” Falwell said. “After speaking for free at [a 2012 Liberty] Convocation and being so complimentary to our University in his remarks, I considered Donald Trump to be a friend of Liberty University and was happy to publicize the poll in hopes that Liberty followers would be willing to vote for him on the heels of his very positive recent campus appearance.”
Falwell noted that at the time the tweet was sent, “Donald Trump was not a candidate for president and no one at Liberty even knew he would run for President.” However, as the Wall Street Journal reported—and as several sources independently confirmed in the course of my reporting for this article—Cohen had hired Gauger, a Liberty employee, to rig the poll in Trump’s favor for the purposes of garnering support ahead of his presidential bid.
“A 501(c)(3) organization trying to influence a poll so that a candidate’s fortunes are promoted or demoted is not permitted,” said Eve Borenstein, an attorney and tax expert known as the “Queen of the 990,” a moniker used to introduce her ahead of congressional testimony she gave about the IRS Form 990 in 2012.
While 501(c)(3) organizations are permitted to “do objective analysis of [an] electoral horse race,” said Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a professor at Stetson University College of Law, “tweeting out a rigged poll if Liberty knew it was rigged probably does not fall into that safe harbor.”
Liberty officials said that the arrangement is characteristic of how Falwell wields power. “This paints a picture of how Jerry operates,” one former high-ranking university official said. “Gauger gets promoted, [Liberty] contracts for RedFinch for online recruitment … and [Gauger] gets hooked up with people like Cohen to make more money via RedFinch.” And in the end, Falwell gets what he really wants: “A guy that will do whatever he is told.”
Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former lawyer, leaves federal court in Dec. 2018. | AP
Michael Cohen’s connection to Jerry Falwell Jr., veers into deeply personal territory.
In May 2019, Reuters reported that Cohen helped Falwell contain the fallout from some racy “personal” photos.Later that month, Falwell took to Todd Starnes’ radio talk show to rebut the claims.
“This report is not accurate,” Falwell said. “There are no compromising or embarrassing photos of me.”
Members of Falwell’s inner circle took note of the phrasing.
“If you read how Jerry is framing his response, you can see he is being very selective,” one of Falwell’s confidants said. Racy photos do exist, but at least some of the photos are of his wife, Becki, as the Miami Herald confirmed in June.
Longtime Liberty officials close to Falwell told me the university president has shown or texted his male confidants—including at least one employee who worked for him at Liberty—photos of his wife in provocative and sexual poses.
At Liberty, Falwell is “very, very vocal” about his “sex life,” in the words of one Liberty official—a characterization multiple current and former university officials and employees interviewed for this story support. In a car ride about a decade ago with a senior university official who has since left Liberty, “all he wanted to talk about was how he would nail his wife, how she couldn’t handle [his penis size], and stuff of that sort,” this former official recalled. Falwell did not respond to questions about this incident.
More than simply talking with employees about his wife in a sexual manner, on at least one occasion, Falwell shared a photo of his wife wearing what appeared to be a French maid costume, according to a longtime Liberty employee with firsthand knowledge of the image and the fallout that followed.
Falwell intended to send the image to his and Becki’s personal trainer, Ben Crosswhite, as a “thank you” for helping his wife achieve her fitness goals, the employee said. In the course of texting, Falwell accidentally sent the message to several other people, necessitating a cleanup.
In a statement, Falwell denied this. “I never had any picture of Becki Falwell dressed in a French maid uniform, and never sent such a non-existent photo to Ben Crosswhite.”
Crosswhite did not respond to requests for comment.
The Falwells’ close relationship with Crosswhite is the source of consternation for some of Liberty’s top brass because of what they characterize as a sweetheart business deal Falwell had the university offer Crosswhite.
On July 23, 2013, Liberty University began renting space to Crosswhite for use as a fitness center. “The facility was specifically built into the old Racket Club for Jerry and Becki to train privately” with Crosswhite, a longtime university official familiar with the arrangement said. Over the course of the Falwells’ private training,Liberty began to pay for expensive upgrades to the facility, according to documents reviewed for this article. Eventually, in 2015, Falwell had a university executive draft a proposal for Liberty to sell the property to Crosswhite at a discount, paying him up front for Liberty’s use of the facility for the next seven years.
“We raised his rent some to cover the investment. LU then sold it to Ben,” one senior university official said. “Nobody else was allowed to bid on it.”
In a Dec. 10, 2013, Instagram post, Becki Falwell and Michael Cohen pose for a photograph during a visit to New York City. “Wonderful seeing my great friend @michaelcohen84 in NY,” Falwell wrote. “He’s the best.” | Instagram
In a September 2015 email, Liberty University Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Randy Smith wrote Crosswhite to let him know the terms of the deal. The university would sell Crosswhite “the club and all real estate associated with it” for $1,216,000. Liberty employees would be allowed to use the facility, Crosswhite could decide what the value of that was—roughly $82,000 per year, he decided—and the school would pay in advance for seven years of use.
At closing, per Falwell’s approval, Liberty would pay Crosswhite approximately $575,000, which effectively cut Crosswhite’s total cost for the $1.2 million property in half. “The net amount that you would need at closing is $641,062 more or less,” Smith wrote. “After reviewing, if the terms are acceptable to you, then I will get final approval from Jerry to proceed,” Smith wrote Crosswhite.
“Hell of a deal,” a former high-ranking Liberty official told me. “We gave Ben everything he asked for.”
In emails obtained for this article, David Corry, lead counsel for Liberty University, expressed concerns about the appearance of the deal. “Please note, though, that Ben Crosswhite enjoys a close working relationship with several LU administrators, including the President, so I suggest whatever course of action is taken, it is done cordially and professionally with knowledge ahead of time that it may be second guessed,” Corry wrote in a September 2017 email to top Liberty staff.
When asked for comment on August 22, Corry four times asked me to turn over to him the email thread. When Corry was provided the exact wording along with the date he sent the email, he replied that he wasn’t shown his “signature block,” perhaps suggesting he had not sent the email in question. When Corry was presented with a screen shot of his email, including his signature block, he said his comment was taken out of context and alleged the sources for this article “are intentionally feeding you partial facts in hopes you will do their dirty work in a very public way.” On August 27, Reuters broke the news of Liberty’s property sale to Crosswhite.
In a statement for this article, Falwell wrote that the athletic facility had been donated to Liberty University and was “a drain on University resources that was disproportionate to its value.” “I wanted to reverse that and allow the University to get what it needed from the facility but eliminate the annual costs of maintenance, staffing and operations,” Falwell said. “Since Ben Crosswhite would not be receiving full use of the entire property” given the university’s continued use of the facility, Liberty decided “Crosswhite never received full value of the whole property and thus should not pay full price.”
“Unless you are approaching this with some sort of pre-determined outcome, the transaction is very easy to understand,” Liberty COO Smith wrote in an email responding to questions for this article. “It is VERY common practice for the university to dispose of an asset that is in financial and operational distress … especially if it can do it in a fashion that is advantageous to the university. To accomplish that while still making the facility available for the university to use is what most would consider to be a win-win situation.”
Smith said the idea for the financial arrangement used to sell the athletic facility to Crosswhite was his. “I proposed that the university commit to renting … from him for a number of years and we could pay that in the form of a credit at closing,” Smith wrote. “To answer your question, yes, creative deals are commonplace at Liberty University.”
“When I hear the laundry list of interested transactions and the questionable use of Liberty University’s assets … I hear a nonprofit that is not well-governed in a sense that I would hope and expect from a sizable nonprofit,” Pitt Law’s Hackney said. “It has the sense of being managed for a charismatic leader and his family and friends rather than for the mission of Liberty.”
Liberty University graduates celebrate after the school’s May 2007 commencement ceremony. | Getty Images
PART III: The Power and the Glory
It will surprise no one that Jerry Falwell Jr. is a Republican. He has that in common with the vast majority of people connected to Liberty. But sometimes his partisan allegiances manifest in ways that directly influence the governance of the school—which, as a nonprofit, must not endorse or oppose candidates for public office.
Just days after the 2008 election of Barack Obama, top university officials were already considering ways to ensure that Liberty students voted in 2010 local elections in Lynchburg. Falwell and university officials weren’t simply talking about the sort of voter-registration drives common at many college campuses; they wanted students to tilt the balance of the election.
In emails obtained for this article, top school officials shared a local newspaper article documenting “concerns in some quarters [of Lynchburg] about the overwhelmingly conservative LU students and the possibility they could alter the balance of power on council and change the course of the city.”
“FYI – The challenge we will have in 2010 is [Lynchburg’s local Election Day] is finals week,” a top Liberty official wrote in a November 9, 2008, email to Falwell and other school leaders. “We would either need to get a polling station at LU or try and make this a reading day to get the kids out to vote.”
Falwell responded to the message just under four hours later, announcing that the problem was now solved: “We changed the calendar by one week. School will now let out on May 14 instead of [M]ay 7.”
This wasn’t a fluke. According to a former high-ranking university official who participated in some of these discussions, Falwell often takes “aggressive efforts … to register students in an effort to gain political influence.”
Similarly, in a 2014 email exchange, Falwell complained that Liberty’s commencement date meant that most students would be gone for the summer by the time voting began for Lynchburg’s local elections. “Why did we schedule commencement a week earlier this year?” he wrote in an email to several school executives. When one replied that commencement usually happened during the same weekend each year, Falwell pushed back. “We need to get that corrected for the 2018 graduation or else we will have no students in town to vote in local elections again,” Falwell wrote. “Let’s work on it.”
In the past, Falwell has defended any political actions he’s made as personal stances disconnected from his leadership of Liberty University. “I think our community is mature enough that they understand that all the administrators and faculty have their own personal political views,” he told the Washington Post after endorsing Trump. But it is as the president and chancellor of Liberty that Falwell changed the academic calendar to influence local politics.
In a statement, Falwell admitted to amending the academic calendar “so that students would not be prevented from voting in local municipal elections that used to be scheduled after their spring term exams.”
“They and their parents pay some of the highest taxes in the nation when it comes to the City meal and hotel taxes,” Falwell said. “It’s only fair that they have some say about who is elected to represent them.”
When I shared my reporting on the school’s date changes, legal experts reached different conclusions as to its propriety.
“This paints a picture of an organization that is intervening on campaigns more than it should,” said Pitt Law’s Hackney, although he added that other universities have “presumably” taken student voting into consideration when creating their schedules.
“Doing anything with the resources of a 501(c)(3) organization to promote or oppose candidates for elective public office is not a permitted operation by a 501(c)(3)-qualified organization under federal tax law,” Borenstein, the tax attorney specializing in nonprofit organizations, wrote in an email.
Still, Falwell’s actions here are “likely fine,” said Torres-Spelliscy, the law professor at Stetson University. “Many schools try to cancel classes or hold no classes on Election Day to encourage students to vote or be poll workers or engage in election protection activities. Though the IRS might consider Falwell’s stated partisan motivation if the IRS investigated Liberty to challenge its 501(c)(3) status, this type of investigation is highly unlikely.” In fact, according to Ellen April, a professor of tax law at Loyola Law School, a very small number of 990 Forms are ever investigated. “The IRS is able to do very little enforcement of the rules applicable to 501(c)(3) because of their limited” resources.
President Donald Trump and Jerry Falwell Jr. onstage during Liberty’s May 2017 commencement ceremony. | Getty Images
Observers snickered when Donald Trump visited Liberty’s campus in2016, veered off script and infamously referred to the Bible’s Second Corinthians as “two Corinthians”—making it appear as if he were learning of the biblical book for the first time. But his promises to religious conservatives—chief among them, his guarantee that he would fill Antonin Scalia’s Supreme Court empty seat with a justice who opposed abortion rights—and his choice of Mike Pence as his running mate mobilized evangelicals to support him in 2016. In CNN’s exit poll from that November, 26 percent of the electorate described themselves as white born-again or evangelical Christians; 80 percent of them voted for Trump.
In 2017, with Trump in office and evangelicals strongly supporting him, the Falwells saw a branding opportunity, according to emails obtained for this article.
That spring, after Trump was invited to deliver the school’s commencement address, Becki Falwell asked university counsel Corry to look into whether Liberty could “permit third-party vendors to sell t-shirts and hats [on campus] during commencement weekend.” Corry advised that because of a contract between the university and Barnes & Noble, which had the exclusive right to sell “clothing, including any and all such items bearing Liberty University emblem, logo, insignia, or other identifying mark” on campus, the answer “depends upon who is selling them and whether Barnes & Noble consents.”
“I want to make sure that we have a lot of options available to purchase,” Becki Falwell replied, adding additional Liberty officials to the email thread. “It’s great advertising for Liberty to be on products with Trumps name.”
In a follow-up email to the Liberty officials, Becki wrote, “I spoke to Michael Cohen and he said to make sure any shirts we buy are made in America! He loved the designs!”
The school ended up printing and selling Trump T-shirts and hats. The shirts, in MAGA red with white type, read “TRUMP” in large block letters and “Liberty University Commencement 2017” in a much smaller font size. Another design, used on both hats and T-shirts, borrowed Trump’s campaign slogan and signature style: an all-caps “Making America Great Again,” then in a script font: “One degree at a time.”
Ahead of Trump’s speech at Liberty’s 2017 commencement, Becki Falwell wrote an email to several high-ranking Liberty officials: “It’s great advertising for Liberty to be on products with Trumps name.” The school ended up printing and selling Trump t-shirts and hats. The shirts, in MAGA red with white type, read “TRUMP” in large block letters, with “Liberty University Commencement 2017” in a much smaller typeface. Another design, used on both hats and t-shirts, borrowed Trump’s campaign slogan and signature style: an all-caps “Making America Great Again,” then in a script font: “One degree at a time.” | Obtained by Brandon Ambrosino
“Liberty University actually benefited by having President Donald Trump speak at commencement and by associating his brand with the University’s brand,” Jerry Falwell said in a statement, expressing his disappointment that the emails were shared. “Because Donald Trump is conservative, there is a benefit for a conservative Christian school to be associated with him, so long as the association does not cross the legal line set by the federal government.”
Told about the merchandise, experts suggested that the Trump-Liberty T-shirts might cross that line. “A 501(c)(3) organization cannot be selling those shirts or gifting space to someone selling t-shirts with a candidate’s name on it, since that is advertising for a candidate,” Borenstein said.
Ever since Falwell endorsed Trump ahead of the 2016 Iowa caucuses, political pundits have speculated that Trump was simply using Falwell to achieve his own political ends. That might be true: From his regular appearances at evangelical events to his claim that he single-handedly brought back the phrase “Merry Christmas,” Trump seems to be keen on shoring up his evangelical base. What better way to do that than to cultivate a very public relationship with the late Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr.’s son?
But multiple associates of Jerry Falwell Jr. said the popular narrative is backward: It’s not Trump who has the most to gain from the relationship, it’s Falwell. Trump just went along with the arrangement.
Falwell has become known as a Trump loyalist who is willing to put his—and his school’s—reputation on the line to defend the president from any critic. In Trump, Falwell said in 2017, “evangelicals have found their dream president.” When asked by the Washington Post late in 2018 if there were “anything President Trump could do that would endanger that support from you or other evangelical leaders,” Falwell said “No.”In a May 2019 tweet about the Mueller investigation, Falwell appropriated the language of reparations for descendants of slaves to argue Trump’s term should be lengthened: “I now support reparations. Trump should have 2 yrs added to his 1st term as pay back for time stolen by this corrupt failed coup.”
In Trump, Falwell has found the opportunity to secure his own status as one of America’s preeminent Christian political leaders—the chance to finally obtain the national relevance of his father. Now, Falwell is a national figure—a friend to a president, a man prone to outspoken statements that rile critics and endear him to supporters, a major leader on the religious right despite not being a pastor. He is closer than ever before to the kind of status the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr. wielded.
But for those at Liberty who know both Falwell Jr. and his late father, there’s no comparing the men.
“Jerry’s daddy was a respectable, honest, decent, hardworking man,” said a longtime Liberty official who worked for both father and son. “Big Jerry hired people that were smart and capable and put them around himself. He made sure you knew you were appreciated. There was never an ego involved. You knew you were working for a higher calling. Jerry’s father was very generous and promoted all of us in an enlightening way.”
With Falwell Sr., “you could feel his passion and love for the Lord and others. He knew everyone’s names, their stories and struggles. He was genuine and loving. And that love bled from the campus,” a former longtime university official said. “It’s a cold place now.”
“With [Jerry’s] dad, there were never questions about his business dealings or whether he was profiting from a business deal,” said still another former longtime high-ranking Liberty official who worked closely with both men. “There was never a hint or suspicion of that because Falwell Sr. was only doing things that were for the benefit of the university or church—not for himself.”
The feeling is different with Junior in charge.
One source pointed to a tweet Jerry Falwell Jr. sent out in June 2019 criticizing David Platt, an evangelical Virginia pastor who apologized for welcoming Trump to his church. “I only want to lead us with God’s Word in a way that transcends political party and position, heals the hurts of racial division and injustice, and honors every man and woman made in the image of God,” Platt said. “Sorry to be crude,” wrote Falwell in a since-deleted tweet, “but pastors like [David Platt] need to grow a pair.”
After Falwell came under criticism for his tweet about Platt, he responded to critics with a two-part Twitter thread, which, in the words of one current high-ranking Liberty official, “a lot of people found troubling.”
“I have never been a minister,” Falwell tweeted. “UVA-trained lawyer and commercial real estate developer for 20 yrs. Univ president for last 12 years-student body tripled to 100000+/endowment from 0 to $2 billion and $1.6B new construction in those 12 years. The faculty, students and campus pastor @davidnasser of @LibertyU are the ones who keep LU strong spiritually as the best Christian univ in the world. While I am proud to be a conservative Christian, my job is to keep LU successful academically, financially and in athletics.”
To those who worked for Liberty under the late Rev. Falwell, the sentiment appeared to signal a serious departure from his father’s legacy. “Bragging about business success and washing his hands of any responsibility for spiritual life at the university—that was frankly a pretty Trumpian line of commentary,” said one former university official with longstanding ties to both Liberty and the Falwell family.
Under Falwell Jr., Liberty University is “a totally dysfunctional organization,” one board member wrote in an email reviewed for this article. “Very similar to Trump’s White House.”